With her trembling right palm, she unconsciously caresses her swollen belly, her left wrist lightly guiding the steering wheel. I had not noticed the protrusion of her abdomen before , a curved pressure against the waffle weave of her polo shirt, a roundness incongruent with her slight and sure translucent wrists.
"Does it hurt?" I asked her. Yes, there's some pressure. "How long?" Just a week or two since the pain. I overheard her telling my father wryly that it was like when she was 7 months pregnant.
Advent is supposed to be a time of waiting. We don't wait much at all these days. There are Cesarean sections and instant watch movies and smart phones; we don't wait for our bread to rise or for the year of jubilee. We only wait when we're bored. Or desperate.
The dye she swallowed confirmed a "suspicious mass", 13 cm by 8 cm in the abdominal cavity. But we didn't have any insurance, so nobody had any room in the in-patient ward for her. It took doctors breaking deals and nurses plying their power just to get the tests at a cost we could pay up-front. Mountains of paperwork, miles of phone calls, exorbitant prices. Waiting. The words 'ovarian cancer' had been spoken but it would take another four weeks before the tumor (which we didn't call it aloud) could be cut out. I tried not to imagine it pumping out cancerous cells like some burst oil main. Four weeks is a long time.
But we waited. Stuck between jobs, I was home with nothing to do but pray for the paperwork to go through and take over my mother's chores. September in Los Angeles is as listless as summer, full of 90-degree afternoons and browning grass. In my silent neighborhood, I'd squint into the glaring sun and hose the rabbit crap off the steel cage, letting it drip dry against the brick wall. I tried to revive the fragile, crisping plants, mostly dead save the tomato vine. Every day there seemed to be ten more miniature, yellow tomatoes, falling into my hands.
Mom would lie in the cool shade of her room, the one place in the house with a working air conditioner. She stacked and re-stacked pillows to cushion her sides, her hands protectively curled around her bulging stomach--attempting to sleep against the enormous pressure in her core. A perversion of pregnancy--the aches and the pain--the organs re-arranging to protect a death-dealing lump near her womb. The people I spoke to would say many women already have had their hysterectomies by now; it's common to have complications. We try to keep motherhood picturesque--the pale virgin clasping the rosy-child,
but the mechanics are messy, often fatal. This made me inexplicably angry. The beginning of life turned into a ticking bomb.
"I never thought that I would actually say I was looking forward to a surgery," she said with rye humor, "but I am, at this point." Sometimes, we would go a whole day waiting for the doctor's office to call back; we often went to sleep disappointed. Through all this waiting there was still, I think, the slightest hope the mass
might prove to be benign, some strange fiber for the book of records. Thank God, we would have said. The surgeon would have smiled gently, shook our hands and sent us home.
My 23rd birthday was spent propped between two chairs in a silent ICU. Silent, except for the beeping of machines, the steady hiss of my mother's respirator and the trickle of dripping IVs and catheters. I normally spend the night before my birthday in some sort of crisis anyway, wondering over the worthiness of my existence so I was glad for something to focus on - in this case, my mother's breath, my mother's life which swallowed up any unworthiness in my own. The gatekeeper, Fernando, made a point of asking my name and with his thick Filipinno accent insisted "You take" as he offered me juice boxes, graham crackers, cups of tea, blankets. A strange set of birthday gifts.
It's hard to explain what exactly I was waiting for. They had told my family we didn't need to be there, but we took shifts nevertheless, We weren't expecting the surgery to have taken a slice of her diaphragm and the consequent sedation and tubes and indignity.We weren't expecting a lot of things.
I don't know how to expect goodness; I think I may have learned how to wait for relief. But to wait actively with hope for health, for life to return to something better than the status quo is beyond me. I have been waiting for relief from one thing or another for as long as I can remember: the pressures of high school, the rigors of college, the pang caused by a broken home, the uncertainty of post-graduate life. With my mother, first we waited for confirmation of the tests, then too long for the surgery. Then hours for the final verdict, where the tumor had been and what it was. Then, after they scooped out her insides we waited for her breaths to be her own, for the ventilator to be removed, for awareness to return. For speech. Then a room in the cancer ward. Then for chemo. One by one we waited for the tubes to be removed, for home and then for hair loss.
It seems the best I can hope for is the next batch of relief from pain, the next wave of fresh air after a long hospital shift. I dare not even hope for healing. It is hard for me to look forward to a Messiah. For beauty. For redemption. For thicker hair growing in. Frankly, I'm afraid to ask for it. Afraid of prayers answered only by beeping heart monitors.
Advent is the time we remember waiting for Christ's first arrival, His incarnation. But "adventus" is also the Latin translation of the Greek "paraousia" - the word in the New Testament for the Second Coming of Christ. Early advent celebrations did not involve chocolate count-down calendars, but fasting and repentance. It mirrored Lent in symbolic preparation for the fiery appearance of Christ the Judge, who when he returns to earth will not come as an infant meek and lowly. This is easier for me to imagine right now.
I am not expecting redemption--I'm tensed for judgement, for the day and hour that no one knows, looking forward to the next diagnosis, pronouncement, statistic. Fifty percent in one year, seventy percent in three years. All of these numbers and falling stars and mysterious scrolls in the near and distant future. I pray for specifics, hoping I will be able to see the light, the clear, palpable hope, something tangible, something palpable, asking for an appointment or timeline when God will explain things or make them right.. How long?
David never took these things lying down. For a man after God's own heart, he seems surprisingly impatient. He rants and raves, pushes God's time deficiencies squarely back in His face. "How long," he always asks, "how long." And he's not texting tactfully what time the surgery will be done, avoiding the question of what the results might be. He wants earth-shattering restoration, shalom that will raise the dead and restore the exiled, and David wants it now. At least at the beginning of his poems.
He never gets his questions answered. At least, not from a voice in the sky providing a schedule, which I think is what we all want from prayer. But David does answer his own questions, in a round-a-bout way. He wanders away from the whens and almost always ends with Who.
Psalm 131 How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long
will You hide Your face from me? 2 How long shall I take counsel in
my soul, Having sorrow in my heart all the day? How long will my
enemy be exalted over me? 3 Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
Enlighten my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, 4 And my
enemy will say, "I have overcome him," And my adversaries will
rejoice when I am shaken. 5 But I have trusted in Your
lovingkindness; My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. 6 I will
sing to the LORD, Because He has dealt bountifully with me.
No timeor reassurance given, but a strange proclamation of trust surfacing
from the turmoil.
And then in David's most over-quoted and under-appreciated Psalm 23, he says something that stops me flat. Not the Valley of the Shadow of Death--that needs very little reflection to have resonance. But "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me."
Follow? I asked a very smart man with all sorts of degrees if it could really mean a literal following--behind one's back, coming after. He said it's the same verb that is used of David's enemies--relentless pursuit.
And I thought maybe that's why I can't hope for goodness, or even see it, sometimes. It's behind me. All the days of our lives. Invisible as the tree in your backyard, your first laugh, your mother's care. It's the foundation, the past pursuing, the good, sweet soil we walk upon. The apex of history, the kindness of God--the incarnation and the crucifixion and the resurrection--the intention of mercy--all behind us, at the foundations of the world. Pursuing us through every dark valley, dogging our steps. The rearguard in every battle.
When I look back at that first four weeks of awful waiting, I think of those damn tomatoes, popping up like manna. If we had no money for anything else, it seems we could live on those cheeky yellow bulbs. I think also of Fernando, the kindly gatekeeper of the I.C.U. I think of the generosity of our friends and the people my mother has touched that is still following us: grocery store gift cards, pet food, meals. We're still living on the goodness of others and may have to for some time.
I wonder if this is what the Second Coming will be like. Not an emphasis on our failures, but a revealing, an unveiling of the good God who followed us all our lives. We may still be sick when he comes, but we will see everywhere his tender care, his help towards health. The exposure of our lack coupled with the incredible display of provision--the dramatic irony revealed in a burst of celebration. And I wonder if perhaps this is why we wait for the coming of Christ. When he comes, we will see that he has been behind
us all along, sewing history with seeds of beauty, opening the windows of our petty lives and making room for light.
So we wait for the coming of Christ - for he has come and he will come again and he is here now. We trust the Who more than we hate the when. We know that here and now it is "Keep waiting--I'll be right on time" that Christ speaks to us. Come, thou-long expected Jesus. Thou art here.
Michelle H. is a writer, a distinguished graduate of Westmont College and works as an English Teacher in Colorado.